A Scholar's Legal Peril in Poland

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008

WARSAW -- Polish prosecutors are considering taking the unusual step of filing criminal charges against an Ivy League professor for allegedly "slandering the Polish nation" in a book that describes how Poles victimized Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II.

Jan T. Gross, a Princeton University historian and native Polish Jew, has raised hackles here with the publication of "Fear," an account of Poland's chaotic postwar years in which Jews who barely survived the brutal Nazi occupation under the Germans often went on to suffer further abuse at the hands of their Polish neighbors.

The book was first published in 2006 in the United States, where reviewers found it praiseworthy. Gross's work, however, generated bitter feelings among many Poles who accused him of using inflammatory language and unfairly stereotyping the entire population as anti-Semitic. When the Polish-language edition of his book was released here last Friday, prosecutors wasted no time in announcing that he was under investigation.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office in Krakow, which is handling the case, said a decision was expected this week on whether to press charges against Gross or summon him for questioning.

The law in question was adopted in 2006, around the time that "Fear" was published in English; Gross and some other historians say it was partly a response to the book. The measure prohibits anyone from asserting that "the Polish nation" was complicit in crimes or atrocities committed by Nazis or communists. The maximum penalty is three years' imprisonment.

The threat of legal action has not deterred Gross so far. He arrived in Warsaw on Monday for a nationwide tour to promote his book, which has already sold out in some stores. In an interview, he said he doubts prosecutors will charge him.

"It's completely bizarre," he said, seeming to relish the attention. "There's an old saying in Polish that if God wants to punish someone, he takes away their brains first."

Poland has prosecuted Gross for his views before. In 1968, during communist rule, he was arrested as a student for participating in a free-speech movement and served five months in prison. He departed for the United States a year later, taking advantage of a Polish government policy that encouraged Jews to leave the country. He enrolled at Yale University and ultimately became a U.S. citizen.

In 2001, as a scholar, he provoked an intense public reckoning in Poland by publishing "Neighbors," a book about a 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne. Uncovering new evidence, he documented how hundreds of Jews were massacred by Polish villagers in an atrocity that had previously been blamed on the Nazis. Although the book caused an uproar, its findings were later corroborated by an official historical commission and endorsed by the government.

Many Polish historians are less enamored of Gross's most recent book. But several have slammed the authorities for even thinking about taking the Princeton professor to court, saying it makes the country look backward.

"As a historian, I quite simply consider it a scandal," said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. "It jeopardizes the standing of Poland as a democratic nation. We must demonstrate that we are not afraid of any historical truths, no matter how devastating."

At the same time, Machcewicz and other scholars have strongly criticized "Fear," arguing that Gross has sought to inflame public opinion by exaggerating the Polish attacks on Jews as "ethnic cleansing." They also said he ignored how Polish society was filled with ethnic and religious recriminations after the war and that many Catholics, Poles and Ukrainians found themselves the target of violence.


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